Another Article - Greek Athletes in New York City: Time of the Titans
TIME OF TITANS:
GREEK ATHLETES IN NEW YORK CITY
By Steve Frangos
Published in The National Herald, June 17, 2006
I am excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group.
The history of amateur Greek athletics in New York City is still a matter of debate. This is especially curious since, from 1901 to the present, published accounts on the Greek amateur athletes of New York City abound. Many Greek immigrants joined local athletic clubs and gyms throughout the five boroughs.
We will restrict our survey here to the Greek American Athletic Club of New York City. As far as available published accounts now report, the GAAC was, at least as of 1901, originally based in Brooklyn’s Ulmer Park. By 16 May 1913, however, the GAAC had moved to Manhattan. We know this, in part, because of a news report:
“Alexander Haggis, the wrestling instructor of the Greek American Athletic Club, last night defeated Gus Peterson, the Princeton University professional, in a catch-ascatch-can wrestling bout in the gymnasium of the Greek American Athletic Club on 313 West 53rd Street. Haggis, who is a former AAU champion, proved the master of Peterson, and won in two straight falls in 57 minutes 24 seconds and 51 minutes 15 seconds, respectively. Peterson made the mistake of trying to do all the aggressive work, while Haggis allowed his opponent to expend much of his strength before beginning operations. Haggis threw his man with each a crotch and toehold. Peterson’s left ankle was weak, and Haggis devoted his attention to this weakness, finally wearing Peterson down.”
The address for the club aside, the key phrase here is “catch-ascatch-can wrestling.” It was this American-style of wrestling and its focus on the submission hold which launched literally hundreds of Greek immigrants into first amateur, and then professional, wrestling in North America. As Greeks in the present day are commonly associated with restaurants, in the early 1900’s, they were commonly seen as the strongmen wrestlers of the largest arenas, the most prestigious vaudeville stages and spectacular circus tents in the country.
Greeks – as internationally recognized strongmen, noted wrestlers and award-winning athletes – represented a period of time and a host of familiar names and careers which have all somehow become lost in the self-consciousness of contemporary Greeks and Greek Americans. This is nothing short of astounding. As an example of the common press coverage Greek athletes often got, we need only cite the New York Times sports section of February 18, 1912. A five-column photograph of the “Greek American Athletic Club Stars” heads the page. We see no less than 44 athletes proudly posing in their club uniforms, along with three men in suits.
When reviewing the history of Greek immigrants in sporting events, however, the real question we should be asking ourselves is, what were these athletes doing when they weren’t running, jumping, boxing or fighting in a ring? When reading those few accounts of early Greek amateur athletes, I often wonder if the writers ever took into account that these early Hellenes were treated like dirt by “native-born” Americans, as well as by many other ethnic groups, when they were not all together on the sports field. The few writers or lecturers who present information on these historical sporting events all focus on athletics as “a means of preserving (Greek immigrant) group identity and providing pleasure while they were away from home.” They have totally missed the point.
All those photographs one sees today – of men in sporting uniforms with medals on their chests and trophies next to them – had a distinct meaning for those men. These immigrants from afar had conquered their oppressors by training and mastering themselves. They achieved on the level field of sports, then, what they could not achieve as waiters, shoeshine boys or as “dirty Greeks” on the sidewalks of New York. This is social history and politics in their widest sense.
But let’s return to the claim that Greek athletes were among the most notable of their day.
To underscore this claim, we need only cite that it is from the memories of no less a figure than Eugene Sandow (1867-1925) that we hear about the GAAC of New York. Often referred to as the “Father of Modern Bodybuilding,” Sandow was an internationally recognized pioneering bodybuilder of the Victorian Era. A great admirer of Greek and Roman statues, Sandow sought nothing less than the Grecian Ideal as his formula for the perfect physique.
Sandow was the first performing strongman, according to contemporary understanding of that concept. While Sandow first took the stage as part of Ziegfeld’s Follies, it was his later activities which separated him from other mere strongmen. Aside from his public performances, Sandow also wrote books on physical culture and nutrition; invented exercise machines; and opened various gyms to teach his methods. Sandow was also the first strongman on film, as none other than Thomas Edison himself issued one of the very first films ever made on Sandow flexing his muscles and performing feats of strength. Moreover, much like Arnold Swarzenegger, Sandow was an extremely erudite businessman.
It is in the writings of “Sandow the Magnificent,” as he was then known, that we hear of the GAAC. Sometime after 1917, Sandow’s brother Joseph, who was also a recognized athlete, trained for a time “at the Greek Athletic Club in New York, he established a left-arm barbell press record of 301 pounds. This is considered by some authorities as the world’s record in the left arm press. It was here, at the Greek Athletic Club, that I met, for the first time, Tofalos, the world-famed champion strong man of Greece. In weightlifting, he is best known for the records he established with the weights in one of the Olympic meets, held many years ago. I saw him workout with a barbell that weighed considerably over 200 pounds. He lifted the weight about ten times in succession with his two arms. His style of lifting a barbell is the last word in this science which, coupled with his great strength, made him a world’s champion.”
That such attention and praise came from Sandow may escape many modern readers. Sandow’s public stature, at the time he made these remarks, was such that these comments were nothing short of endorsements of the first order.
Yet here again, we enter murky historical waters. Demetrios Tofalos (1880-1966) is generally understood to have traveled to North America around 1908. According to published accounts, the first time Tofalos professionally wrestled in New York City was in the early part of November 1915. At the moment, we have no specific date or document attesting to when Tofalos helped co-establish the Hermes Athletic Club, or if he ever did. In typical Greek fashion, the only photograph ever offered of Demetrios Tofalos with other Greek immigrant athletes in New York shows him in a group photograph with the background banner, “Greek American Athletic Club NY (www.hoc.gr/en/info/periodika7o/4.as p).” This article nonetheless attests that Tofalos “was one of the cofounders of the Hermes Greek American association in New York.”
We also know that, by 1932, the GAAC was meeting in the basement of Evangelismos (Annunciation) Church in Manhattan. By at least 6 November 1933, “the Greek American Hermes AC” members were competing with other amateur athletes.
The interactions of Sandow and Tofalos aside, many members of the GAAC were outstanding athletes. In 1932-33, two members of the GAAC participated in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles: Nikolaos Mastrorides (boxing) and Ioannis Moralis (50-kilometer walk).
Another elusive question is the September 3, 1912 track and field competition between J. Bredemus of Princeton, New Jersey and the legendary Jim Thorpe (1887-1953) during the Amateur Athletic Union’s all-around championship at Celtic Park on Long Island. Thorpe was awarded the overall title which Bredemus had won in 1908. While Thorpe carried the day, Bredemus was always a close competitor. Bredemus beat Thorpe in the pole vault, 880-yard walk, and throwing the 16-pound ball – not a bad performance against the man many contend was the greatest natural athlete who ever lived. But in the end, we still face the question, was Bredemus really a Greek immigrant as many in the community still contend?
More research clearly needs to be undertaken before we can begin piecing this historical puzzle together. Fortunately the Greek Museum of New York City has already begun collecting invaluable documentation on this aspect of our common historical experience.
I urge anyone who has more detailed information on Greek amateur athletes to contact the Greek Museum of New York: P.O. Box #1863, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163 (or visit the web at www.greek-museum.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
No one can, or will, provide this information but you. If you think someone is going to come to your house to collect this treasure, outside of the Greek Museum volunteers, you are sorely mistaken. No one cares for our history. No academic will lift a finger to help you. As in any family, neighborhood or village, we Greeks must preserve our own history for those who will follow us. No one else will ever be Greek for us. Only by understanding our true past can we build upon the actions and achievements of those disciplined early Hellenes, to whom we all claim allegiance.